From Ayodhya to Sabarimala, Indian politicians continue to appeal to religious sentiments for building vote banks. Over the past decade, several political scientists have tried to study how these appeals to religion impact voting behaviour. However, much of this analysis may be based on an inadequate understanding of Hinduism, according to a new study by Ajay Verghese of the University of California.

Existing research conceptualizes religion largely through the lens of Abrahamic monotheistic faiths such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but understanding eastern religions require a substantively different way of thinking about religion, says Verghese.

To show this, he uses a comparative survey of 100 households across two demographically similar villages in Bihar to examine what Hindus themselves understand of Hinduism and test the validity of existing measures of Hindu religiosity.

The study revealed major discrepancies between what academics and Hindus consider religious. For instance, existing measures of Hindu religiosity place importance on going to the temple but Verghese’s survey indicates that very few Hindus consider this important.

These inconsistencies could explain why past studies attempting to predict the role of religiosity in voting outcomes for the Bharatiya Janata Party have found a very weak or no link between the two. Verghese argues that constructing religiosity measures for eastern traditions needs closer attention to issues of translation, context specificity, and indigenous understandings of what religion is and what it means to be religious. In the context of India, Verghese contends that no convincing measure of Hindu religiosity exists and that, without it, studying its effect on politics—voting behaviour and the rise of Hindu nationalism—is a precarious task.

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